Volume 20, Number 49 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 20 - 26, 2011
Fighting to keep Seaport museum from sinking
BY Aline Reynolds
Tourists hoping to catch an exhibit at the Seaport Museum are in for a disappointment, at least for the next month, and perhaps for good.
The museum at 12 Fulton St., which has been struggling to keep its doors open in recent months, seems to be unofficially closed.
Due to “a variety of scheduling and other issues,” the museum will not open its next exhibit until mid-May, at the earliest, according to a receptionist at the museum who wouldn’t disclose their name.
Details about the forthcoming exhibit haven’t yet been released. “They’re working on it right now and are hoping to have more information soon,” said the receptionist.
The only exhibits that are currently open to the public are on the Ambrose lightship and Peking four-masted barque, two of the museum’s eight historic ships.
The Peking, which reportedly is up for sale, has deteriorated substantially over the years, with restoration costs estimated at around $28 million, according to marine surveyor and consultant Joseph Lombardi.
Mary Ellen Pelzer, the museum’s president, declined to comment about the museum’s finances, which have recently been in dire shape. A museum spokesperson issued a written statement, saying, “The Seaport Museum [NY] continues to work to resolve its current fiscal challenges and place itself on a path to long-term sustainability.”
Several sources once or currently affiliated with the museum, however, don’t believe that to be true.
“It seems to me the museum is trying to somehow manage to shut down,” said Michael Abegg, former chief mate of the museum’s schooner, the Lettie G. Howard, who was fired last week for violating a media policy.
A clear indicator of this, Abegg said, is the museum’s decision to no longer advertise programming on its boats. “The current regime doesn’t really see the importance of the boat or the education program,” he said.
Only two staff members remain in the museum’s education department, according to Abegg, and they’re not currently booking trips on its sailing vessels.
The captain of the Pioneer schooner, who ran a very successful volunteer program, was let go on Feb. 2 amid other recent layoffs and furloughs that have led to a loss of more than half the museum’s staff, according to sources.
The museum is thinking about doing away with its entire fleet, according to Abegg and other museum advocates. Three of the ships — the Pioneer, the Lettie G. Howard schooner and the W.O. Decker tugboat – have been leased at no cost for a year, according to Abegg.
The museum’s spokesperson wouldn’t confirm, this, however, and only said, “Seaport Museum [NY] is exploring various options regarding the maintenance of its historic vessels.”
But the mere thought of the ships leaving the harbor distresses many Seaport museum lovers. “The [Economic Development Corporation] is telling the museum to cut costs, get rid of anything they can, and basically hunker down until they can somehow restructure the place,” said Robert Ferraro, the first president of the Friends of the South Street Seaport Museum, a volunteer group that helped get the museum up and running in its first years of existence.
The city, the museum’s landlord, declined to comment.
Ferraro, along with other advocates, has joined forces with the museum’s founder, first president and volunteer staff consultant, Peter Stanford, to devise a plan to salvage the museum. They held their first meeting with Pier 16 volunteers two Saturdays ago and are working on a written proposal asking that the museum take certain immediate steps to resuscitate itself.
“The whole purpose is to get the City, or whoever it is that’s running the museum, to take a look at what we’re suggesting,” said Ferraro. “We just want to be heard, ’cause we think we have something important and valuable to say.”
The museum used to be a thriving institution, Ferraro, added, and there is no reason why it can’t prosper once again.
First, the proposal advises the museum’s staff to rededicate itself to the public through a comprehensive program of meetings, newsletters and public events centered on the history of New York City and the South Street Seaport.
It also recommends that the staff organize public demonstrations of its ship operations and redevelop an active membership group and an accountable, elected board of trustees.
Rather than sell off or give away its boats, the museum should do the exact opposite — restore them and expand programming on them, according to the advocates. “The strategy of the museum is entirely backward — instead of going out and using the ships as appropriate vehicles to encourage public support, they’re seen as liabilities,” said Ferraro.
“They’re not liabilities — they’re its very heart and soul. It’s got to use those great assets as a way to support itself.”
The proposal calls for the museum to “bring our ships to life, with sail-handling and sailorly arts used in crew training” and “with visitors helping to handle line, telling their own stories and advancing a cultural heritage vital to the city’s story.”
To succeed, Stanford said, the museum must also rely wholeheartedly on its volunteers, “pick the rhythms of what people are interested in” and “campaign aggressively to get people involved” in fundraising.
“I don’t think the basic New Yorker has changed that much,” Stanford said of the recent decline in philanthropy. “They just haven’t been invited in an open, generous way.”
Stanford is faulting Pelzer, in particular, for failing to engage donors and visitors. He is calling for her resignation and for an interim director to be appointed and guided by the leaders of the Erie Maritime Museum, the Mystic Seaport, and other successful maritime museums around the country.
“Mary should have never held this job… she didn’t have enough experience, nor the generosity of spirit or willingness to learn,” said Stanford.
Abegg said Pelzer’s announcement of the museum’s troubles to its staff seemed “inauthentic,” and attributed the institution’s financial meltdown to her “autocratic” ruling style.
The advocates group has scheduled a phone conference for Thursday to continue the dialogue and to figure out a way to reach Mayor Michael Bloomberg with its messages. The City, they argue, should be responsible for supplying the funds to keep the museum alive.
“A hidden factor in all this is that the Mayor, in ways we don’t know, is really calling the shots around here,” said Stanford. “I’d like the City to rebuild and restructure the museum, and stop the nonsense.”
Abegg is co-leading a group of about 150 Pier 16 volunteers that has launched saveourships.org to get the word out about the museum’s troubles and solicit aid.
The museum is an irreplaceable aspect of the history of New York City, according to Walter Rybka, president of the Council of American Maritime Museums, a collegial association of maritime museums of which Seaport Museum New York is a member.
“It would be a tremendous loss to the memory and the cultural fabric of New York to have that close,” said Rybka.
The museum he said, “lets people come and just experience the closest thing they can to the environment of the early- and mid-19th century.”